Report: Faculty weigh in on digital courseware

A new study provides the ed-tech community with some of the only research into postsecondary faculty perspectives on the state of the digital courseware market.

faculty-digital-coursewareA recently released report from Tyton Partners shows that while faculty see great potential in digital courseware, there are still numerous barriers to effective and widespread adoption.

The research study, titled “Time for Class: Lessons for the Future of Digital Courseware in Higher Education, Part 1: Faculty Perspectives on Courseware,” is the first in a three-part series focused on outlining national faculty survey results, institutional decision-making processes and barriers, and recommendations for digital courseware developers.

The study aims to provide an honest look into the challenges digital courseware faces while also proposing opportunities for refinement with the goal of delivering the highest quality of personalized learning at scale.

Amongst mounting pressure in the higher education community to improve the quality and personalization of learning while simultaneously increasing both affordability and accessibility, the report indicates that the rising adoption of digital courseware could prove to be an excellent educational tool, especially if better designed and implemented.

(Next page: The barriers to digital courseware adoption)

As defined in the report, digital courseware is “curriculum delivered through purpose-built software to support teaching and learning.” Digital courseware has been touted as a resources that could give educators the opportunity to appeal to implement flexible learning environments–a growing interest from students–by providing effective personalized instruction using mobile, online, and other technology-driven platforms.

Above all, the aim of most digital courseware providers is to improve learning outcomes.

After conducting 2 surveys in July and August of 2014 of 2,700 administrators and faculty members (with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation),  it was revealed that:

  • 96 percent of respondents were aware or at least somewhat aware of digital courseware and how it could be used in a class
  • 54 percent of faculty respondents used digital courseware during the 2013-2014 academic year
  • 52 percent of respondents indicated that they value the potential impact of digital courseware

In addition to the surveys, Tyton Partners also analyzed over 120 courseware products through company surveys, interviews, and secondary research.

Not always smooth sailing

Though the majority of respondents agreed that digital courseware has the potential to improve learning for non-traditional students as well as broaden educational access, many also agreed that uncertainty looms when it comes to widespread adoption.

“I feel pressured to use online instruction in some way at our institution, but I believe it mostly requires an increase in labor for instructors,” stated a full-time tenured faculty survey respondent. “I am not sure of the benefit it actually provides over traditional delivery in my area of teaching.”

Specifically, the survey results uncovered three major barriers to faculty adoption of digital courseware:

The first major barrier, as identified by 40 percent of respondents, is the “additional time required for faculty” to find existing digital courseware that effectively fits course goals, as well as the professional development needed to properly implement the courseware. This was the top obstacle reported by instructors from both public and private four-year institutions.

Noting professional development concerns, the survey also found that while 60 percent of faculty reported that they are encouraged by their institution to use digital courseware, only 30 percent are trained to do so effectively

“I think most faculty at my institution appreciate courseware, but the learning curves are steep and the preparation time is a killer! Once you decide to use courseware, you are in for a long but interesting ‘slog’ to learn a system, to create materials for class, and to keep growing,” reported a full-time tenured faculty member who responded to the survey. “After 12 years and the use of four different packages, I have yet to find a student who thinks it has improved their education in ways other than decreasing the amount of time they have to spend in the library.”

(Next page: Barriers 2-3; how to move past digital courseware obstacles)

Second, cost to students was reported as a major barrier, and was a particular concern of faculty members at two-year public colleges.

Third, the overall efficacy of digital courseware programs was a major concern for adoption, as listed by 26 percent of faculty respondents.

Due to these major barriers noted, the survey found that only 15 percent of faculty respondents are incentivized to use digital courseware.

Other barriers were “Lack of alignment with my philosophy of instructional design,” “Reduced control over course content and student experience,” and “Resistance to shift in instructional method,” with 71 percent of faculty respondents indicating a preference for developing their own curriculum over using any third-party content.

“These results are a microcosm of the larger disconnect between campuses and companies serving the postsecondary market,” said Gates Bryant, partner at Tyton. “The continued pursuit of increasing efficacy and delivering successful student outcomes is critical to the evolution of digital courseware, but it is also evident that faculty members want tools that are easier to implement and customize. The channels of communication between faculty members, administrators, and suppliers should be open and clear; this is the most effective way to develop courseware tools and resources that better meet the needs of stakeholders in the classroom.”

Not always a priority

According to the survey, the majority of respondents also reported that their institutions prioritize research in their field over spending time on innovating with digital courseware in the classroom.

“Faculty members and administrators walk a tight rope balancing research and instruction,” said Adam Newman, co-founder and managing partner at Tyton.

“Research is critical to advancing one’s career in academia so investment in new technologies for teaching and learning is often considered too high a cost for faculty members to consider. It is up to institutions to consider how current policies and established paths for long-term career development impact instruction in the classroom. Creating institutional conditions where faculty members can successfully implement digital courseware is critical to accelerating adoption.”

Although changes must be made by both suppliers and institutions, the study outlines specific steps to support faculty satisfaction with, and adoption of, digital courseware: Suppliers need to focus on the experiences of faculty users by simplifying product adoption and implementation, easing technical integration with institutional systems, and offering robust training that includes tools for instruction and time-saving best practices.

Additionally, administrators of institutions need to  take the time to evaluate the conditions that support, or detract from, faculty incentive in using digital courseware, notes the report.

According to Tyton, “the following publications in this research series – to be published across the next two months – will explore the state of the courseware market, provide insight into courseware adoption decisions at institutions, and discuss the potential for redefining the category with the goal of delivering personalized learning at scale.”

For a free download of the full report on “Faculty Perspectives on Courseware,” click here.

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